How would Jesus approach Competency Based Education? | Sanje Ratnavale | 7 Min Read

And there I was at the Pearly Gates. I could see St. Peter on his laptop checking in the latest admits in the cloud.  A sign above him looked like it had been recently posted in the last 500 years: “NO standardized admission tests, extra time, dispensations, or indulgences”. It was my turn and he looked up. “Micro-credentials please?” I looked stunned. He continued, seeing my consternation. “OK. Any blessings…beatitudes…competencies? None? Who taught you? What can you demonstrate you learned?” I woke up screaming. The pandemic had been playing with my mind.

I went to a British school founded decades before the King James Bible. It is so old (close to 450 years, in fact) that this private school was, and is still known, as a public school in the U.K. Divinity was very much part of the required curriculum, and as I looked back on what I learned, it struck me as odd that a school with centuries of experience had decided the best way to teach Christianity was to force their students literally to memorize large parts of the four Gospels. I supposed it must mean they thought Christianity was pretty much self-explanatory; or that what was said by Jesus was difficult to get wrong or be muddled about. But then, how come many of the people Jesus spoke to at the time were so confounded? Why also did Jesus speak so often in metaphors (parables) and offer a whole new set of skills that essentially looked at the world literally upside down? 

My journey of discovery had begun, and curiously it led to the same issues facing education today. Schools have for centuries learned from churches and delivered learning from the front, expert in control, messages modularized for bite-sized consumption, assessment suitably simple, and the whole experience nicely timed to fit into a neatly scheduled world. The printed Bible provided plenty of God-inspired content to fill any time continuum, and our unit-by-unit school curriculum, the same. But were we learning?  And what skills or competencies were we developing? Surely, that had to be an essential part of the calculation behind the curriculum and the pedagogy? 

If Jesus were trying to explain it to me he would probably (as the consummate teacher) start by comparing it to something I know about; competency-based education (CBE). I imagine his explanation would be something like the following:

1. Look at the Old Testament like old CBE

Competency-based education is as old as the hills. Apprenticeship was founded on this concept. It gave a set of standards or discrete skills (such as those developed in guilds), and assessment was very binary. The current world of education is built on exactly such a standards-driven paradigm, and the old definition of competency-based education rested on “mastering” each of these skills, progressing as you achieved them to the next unit, course sequence or standard. Similarly, the Old Testament is known as the “time of the law”, where God sets out his commandments or his standards of behavior for obedience. (Jewish tradition has 613 commandments.)  Fail the standards and you had damaged the relationship with God: sacrifices or atonement was required for credit recovery and to be placed in good standing, so that after “graduation” one’s matriculation at the Pearly Gates might still be assured.

2. Look at the New Testament like New CBE

Now enter the New Testament, a new covenant, and the relationship with God is redefined. The law is not dismissed, it still serves as the foundation for what an ultimate experience with Him would be like, but now grace has replaced sacrifice, with Jesus paying the ultimate sacrifice for every sin. The journey becomes one of discovery, the stipulations are not standards; they are more like performance indicators on a rubric. Advancement is not earned through the accomplishment of standards: the only ongoing requirement is true faith. The rest is discovery and grace.  We don’t have to demonstrate any particular thing, but we definitely have to demonstrate something that certifies expertise.  This sounds a lot more like where competency-based education has evolved — away from standards. The new covenant competencies are not bite-sized bits of content/skills on a heavily prescribed sequential curriculum, they are broad skills acquired through openness to learning, discovery, and feedback. There is no failure because the learning is always happening, whether successful or not, and grace (like authentic feedback) is formative and ever-present.

3. Where is the Driving Question?

New Competency-Based environments are also inquiry-driven and rich in discovery. To be so, they often have a driving question that can take the student in a host of different avenues. Those avenues have different starting points and that is why inquiry-driven approaches are so equitable, because all the students don’t have to start as a cohort in the same place. Their knowledge and experience define the starting point, not what the teacher or the curriculum prescribes. What is the driving question in new covenant Christianity? The driving question in Christianity is “who or what is in charge of your life?”

4. What’s the Project Experience?

Competency-Based environments are ideally project-based because they don’t fit into neat standards of packaged content by discipline. They are experiential. What then is the project here in Christianity? Here is where you will find much divergence in viewpoints across the Christian spectrum, just as you will in definitions of the overall purpose of school: to some it is to serve others, to save the world from sin, to deliver the message of Christ to the world, to prepare for a new Godly kingdom or the Second Coming. For me, “oneself is the project” because you start where things need most repair first. After all, how can you teach what you don’t know or have little experience doing?

5. What are the Competencies?

New competencies are different from old competency standards. They are less specific actions and more meta-skills like Communication or Critical Thinking. The latest thinking on CBE stresses that they must be relevant, they must be accessible in the sense that they must not require too heavy a cognitive load (so perhaps only a few key ones), and they must be measurable through indicators. They must be transferable to different contexts. So where are these competencies in the message of Jesus?

And that is the enigma of my search. I have asked that question to many believers, and the typical response is Ephesians 2:8-9 (that you are “saved by faith and not works, so nobody should boast”). Somehow that does not sound like a skill or competency to me, so I kept looking. 

And I found those competencies, hiding as they were in plain sight. They were in the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew and in the Gospel of Luke, in the guise of the Beatitudes or blessings. And despite their prominence as part of the Sermon on the Mount, I realized decades of church attendance had left me with little understanding of them. They are very rarely discussed or analyzed in churches or schools, perhaps because typical of Jesus, their counter-cultural message turns everything upside down: they begin with likely the most important one, that a particular kind of poverty is real wealth.  Or perhaps because they represent too difficult a message to deliver through traditional learning or the structures that support it.

And yet they fit with exactly what I would expect a set of “new” competencies to be: relatively few (less than 10), relevant across school and life (and even after-life), measurable with different performance indicators, rewarding (with experiential contexts), and transferable across time and space. As relevant 2,000 years ago as they are today, these “new” competencies then (as any competencies we embrace today) must and do provide opportunities for transformation. Learning without transformation may more closely resemble instead, what might be better-termed schooling or churching. 

Jesus took a large crowd up to a mountain and in nine sentences set up these competencies as a foundation for his followers. This Easter, when the pandemic has turned everything upside down, they may be a little easier to relate to, with or without traditional churching or schooling:

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.

Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.

Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.

Matthew 5: King James Bible Version

Great Resources:

The Sermon on the Mount by Emmet Fox (especially pages 18-39)

Reinventing Crediting for Competency-Based Education by Jonathan E. Martin

A Learner’s Paradise: How New Zealand is reimagining Education by Richard Wells

Sanje Ratnavale

Sanje founded OESIS in 2012 and serves as the President of what has grown to become the leading network for innovation at independent schools: the acronym OESIS grew from the initial focus on Online Education Strategies for Independent Schools. He has held senior administrative positions at independent schools including Associate Head of School at a K-12 school for seven years, High School Principal for three years, and CFO for seven years. Prior to making a switch to education, Sanje spent 15 years in venture capital, investment banking, and senior C-level (CEO, COO, CFO) management. He was educated at Christ Church, Oxford University (B.A. and M.A. in Law/Jurisprudence). Sanje is based out of Santa Monica.

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